In both concerts, eight artists played and performed together in the sort of flexible, happy collaboration which is possible only among colleagues of equal discipline, excellence and experience on the one hand and extended, mutually respectful friendship on the other. The Parthenia quartet members – Rosamund Morley/treble viol, Lawrence Lipnik/tenor viol, Beverly Au/bass viol and Lisa Terry/bass viol – were joined by theorbist Richard Stone, soprano Amy Burton, actor Paul Hecht and conductor Gary Thor Wedow.
The first concert had a distinctly pedagogical organization to it – its sections were Exordium (Introduction and Welcome), Narratio (Statement of Facts), Confirmatio (Proof), and Confutatio and Conclusio (Refutation and Peroration) – but was intimate, convivially inclusive and nicely witty in feel. Wedow told the audience that this was going to be an afternoon to talk about rhetoric, about the arts of persuasion as transmitted from the ancient world to the musicians – sacred and secular – and writers and actors of the Renaissance and beyond. Wedow described traditional principles of rhetoric, which the instrumentalists, Burton and Hecht then demonstrated in brief pieces of poetry, music or song. Ideas that might have been vaguely remembered from the dim mists of one’s long past liberal arts education rematerialized as familiar friends, and pieces of literature and music that might have been non-specifically pleasing now had the additional fun intellectual punch of being more deeply understood in terms of their rhetorical strategies.
For example, the aria “Addio, Roma!” from Claudio Monteverdi’s 1642 opera, l’Incoronazione di Poppea, was analyzed phrase by phrase, examining such individual devices as juxtapositions, repetitions, sudden breaks, unexpected contrasts. Then Burton sang it … gloriously. Although the listeners’ awareness of the specific rhetorical linguistic and musical strategies was heightened by Wedow’s explanations, the artistry of both Monteverdi and Burton lay, in fact, in making the audience unaware of the strategies, responding only to the emotional beauty of the aria (and agreeing, however reluctantly, with Wedow’s surprising claim that to really understand opera’s core features one need only study Monteverdi).
Hecht, having read a passage of Hamlet with variations according to early modern recitation protocols, thereby demonstrating the kinship of early modern acting-voice and singing-voice, then assisted in the introduction of one of the French Baroque’s funnier songs, Le Tableau de l’Operation de la Taille, “a musical depiction of an operation to remove a bladder stone,” by Marin Marais (1656-1728). Whether or not the listener knew French, the song was entirely intelligible as an evocation of both a grisly non-anesthesia process and an ultimate medical success.
The last three works of the afternoon concert – two songs by Purcell, and then a viol and theorbo piece by Dowland – were marvelous. Burton’s Virgin Mary, distraught at the famous disappearance of her twelve-year-old son who was subsequently found teaching in the synagogue, was particularly gorgeous: this was a womanly, adoring mother, beside herself with fear and anguish, torn between mortal, human panic and divine, transcendent resignation. This Mary was every parent whose stomach has gone into knots when a child has disappeared; she was also the gorgeous virgin, more immaculate and pure than even the most innocent of us could ever hope to be, whom we can pray to for guidance when we err.
The concert’s concluding piece, Dowland’s “Can shee excuse my wrongs,” managed a luscious, subtle balance of lilting flirtation and bittersweet imploring. Rhetoric – like the discipline required for the sort of technical virtuosity that characterizes Parthenia’s and Stone’s playing – became invisible as beauty seemed to have been made effortless.
The second concert began a little less than two hours after the first concert ended. Unlike the first concert, however, in which the music and literature were all Renaissance and Baroque, the material of the second concert ranged from the sixteenth century to the present. The works were loosely connected in a thematic narrative from love and ecstasy, to reflections on the creative nature of these experiences, to considerations of loss, and to, finally, the timeless otherliness of William Blake’s poetry.
As in the first concert, actor Hecht provided readings of poetry that illuminated the interconnected music by either similarity or contrast. His readings of Andrew Marvell, Walt Whitman and Dylan Thomas were particularly elegant: true to each poet’s historical period, Hecht’s presentations were consistently intelligent. His clarity and presence made each poem, no matter how familiar and well-known, seem immediate and modern. Similarly, soprano Hunter’s singing was clear, stylistically deft, emotionally rich and compelling.
Each piece in and of itself was splendid, but the greatest reward of the concert was the coherent conceptual sweep of one of Parthenia’s constitutive goals.
The chronological presentation of works from the Renaissance to the present was not simply an organizational plan: it was an exploration of two interconnected Parthenia-and-colleagues projects. First, they are interested in how the references associated with Baroque viols’ sound and history inform and illuminate contemporary music composed for these old instruments. Second – even more broadly – they are interested in how interconnections of the sounds of historical allusions with the particularities of specific events, geographies or literary pieces shape the contemporary examination of essentially timeless human questions.
Works by two twentieth century composers (Francis Poulenc, 1899-1963, and Alexander Zemlinsky, 1871-1942) and two contemporary composers (John Musto, b. 1954, and Will Ayton, b. 1948) were featured in the concert. (The two-concert booklet of program notes was exceptionally useful for the first concert and considerably less so for the second. The works of Poulenc, Zemlinsky and Musto were not in fact composed for viols. Whoever reconceived these works for viols deserved to have been credited, not just as “adapters” but as composers. In future concerts and their accompanying program notes, audiences would no doubt enjoy hearing more about Parthenia’s and their colleagues’ adapting, transcribing and composing processes.) Of these four composers, Ayton’s work alone – the variation on a Purcell theme and the William Blake song cycle – was composed directly for viols; these pieces were commissioned by Parthenia in the mid-2000’s.
Poulenc’s setting of Ronsard’s sensuous, wistful love song “A sa guitare,” is quintessentially French in the delicate leisure of its intimacy and the warmth of its colors. Tenderly, Poulenc made the medieval modern; the transposition of the music to viols added courtly urbanity.
Musto’s work was represented in two pieces, an adaptation of Jacobean composer Orlando Gibbons’ “The Silver Swan,” on the paradoxes of death’s release from life’s muteness into the eloquence of meaning, and a setting of Langston Hughes’ “Litany,” a plea for death’s comforts for those who’ve known only cruelty in life. In Musto’s approach to the two texts – so separate and different from each other in period, genre and geography and so similar in the examination of desperation – menacing discordances sidled among melodic resolutions and apparent calm.
The most densely surprising piece – the one with the most unexpected integration of entirely divergent elements – was Parthenia’s account of Alexander Zemlinsky’s Langston Hughes poem, “Misery.” Here, the German composer, born Catholic but raised Jewish, exiled by the anti-Semitism and chaos of pre-World War II Germany to a New York City in which he could not replicate his European success or reputation, found himself responding to Langston Hughes’ eloquence – even as he initially encountered it in German – with a deep recognition of humanity’s capacity to violate humanity. The Zemlinsky-Hughes blues, carried to us by Parthenia’s viols, were about a kind of mourning at human cruelties that will use any and all vocabularies and be intelligible to those who know only one or two.
The concert’s two concluding Ayton pieces were exceptionally intelligently planned. The contemporary composer’s adaptation of Purcell’s melody brought audience and musicians alike back full circle to the viols’ Baroque origins, carrying echoes of twenty-first century musical experiences that still lay in the future. And then: the stunning William Blake… the poet whose poetry, though produced in a particular time and place, resists identification by either chronology or geography. Ayton’s music is rich and lyrical; harmonies that echo Celtic and folk tunes, evoking once-upon-a-time lands that manage both modernity and mysticism, are woven together by deft and sophisticated rhythms. Blake’s astonishing text, “Piping down the valleys wild,” invites artists and audience alike to understand futurity’s constant renewal of innocence as both art’s and wisdom’s oxygen.
The cumulative – successful – project of Parthenia-and-colleagues’ two May 2 concerts was to move from conversations about strategies and craft to the creation and sharing of art. The project’s deeper goals included explorations of relationships between old and new and between temporal specificities and timelessness. Together, the two concerts presented examinations of the ways in which artistic risk and virtuosity can exist within the context of both conservatism and innovation; together, these eight artists offered heady celebrations of poets’, composers’ and their own artistic creativity.
The considerable intellectual pleasures of the concerts’ complex material provided context for the rich beauty of the music and the poetry; at some moments, in the intimate, companionable atmosphere of the St. Luke in the Fields’ white, spare space, it wasn’t clear whether artists or audience were happier.
Parthenia Viol Consort: The Art of Persuasion, An Afternoon and Evening of Rhetoric, Music and Poetry (May 2, 2015)
The Church of St. Luke in the Fields, 487 Hudson Street, in Manhattan
Running time: afternoon concert, 70 minutes; evening concert, 65 minutes